Like Sophie’s Choice, But With Moonlight and La La Land

As bleak as 2016 may have been for most of us, there was no shortage of truly amazing films to escape to throughout the year. Which brings us to the present, and a struggle that seems to illustrate the Manichean view of good and evil that seems so easy to adopt today: Moonlight vs. La La Land. The tension between the films and their fans offers the perfect opportunity for performative Woke Olympics, but that doesn’t mean some of the critiques aren’t valid. Like the matchup of the Falcons and the Patriots meeting in this year’s Super Bowl, or someone arguing that Taylor Swift is on par with Beyoncé (she isn’t), it’s easy to see how one side represents aspects of the supposed white American status quo, while the other does not.

Being Black and loving film simultaneously can an uncomfortable proposition. As a kid, I came to believe some of the things most movies were telling me: That I was an expendable background player on the set of life, that my life didn’t matter. Thankfully I grew to know the opposite to be true, despite most of the medium’s messaging remaining the same. Today, I love film more than I love some people. As a writer, it should probably be the literary sphere and its icons that I worship, study and offer my first-born to, but it’s the realm of film that’s always had my heart. Case in point: The Rosie Perez dance scene at the beginning of Do The Right Thing is more important to me than anything written by a dead white dude, and that’s just how it is.

To be clear, I loved both Moonlight and La La Land, in the way it’s possible to love both dogs and cats without wishing for the demise of either. But at a time when it’s felt more Us. vs. Them than ever before, lines have been drawn regarding these films as well. To love one is to hate the other, and the implications regarding race, sexuality and the business of film flow outward into timelines and IRL debate. Feelings have been caught, arguments had.

Moonlight, based on the autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, was a story that needed telling for many of us, another work that crushes the myth that Black lives can’t make for engaging or heartfelt storytelling the way white lives can. The ascendant Mahershala Ali and the inimitable Naomie Harris have each earned Oscar nods for their turns in the film. The added layer of a Black gay man’s coming of age in the film has further dismantled the standardized mode of storytelling found among so much of Hollywood’s output. I’m not sure that this was the definitive film about gay Black life in America. Frankly, that’s not my call to make. Though many felt it did nothing to center anything other than a classicly masculine experience (because the culture doesn’t seem ready to handle anything else). Yet there’s no doubting the film’s simultaneous power and grace.

There was something especially wonderful about seeing Black kids at play onscreen in parts of the film’s first act, carefree and joyful, shot beautifully by DP James Laxton. Especially when Black children out in the middle of the world aren’t allowed to just be children. A scene where Ali’s character teaches the story’s protagonist, Chiron, to swim, is similarly powerful, given Black people’s history with swimming, a history fraught with racism and stereotype. A nuanced addiction story and a study of the importance of relationships (or the lack thereof) in our lives, combined with Barry Jenkins’ masterful directorial hand, made for what I’m perfectly comfortable calling a masterpiece.

On what’s been perceived as the other side, La La Land was young director Damien Chazelle’s third feature-length film, a love letter to musicals, jazz and the city of LA, and a pastiche of Jacques Demy’s 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. More so, it was a palate cleanser, a bit of much-needed counter-programming after the “WHAT ABOUT THE EMAILS?!” hellscape that was the 2016 US election and the Trump victory that culminated it. I left this film feeling euphoric, as in love with the display of craft I’d just witnessed as Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s characters had been with each other onscreen.

I am a massive fan of director Damien Chazelle’s debut film, Whiplash. As much of an alpha male creative on a warpath for self tale as it may have been, it was a shining first major feature and a story that stuck with me as a creative on a path of his own. It was the trials and heartbreaks and triumphs that come with an artist’s (often egotistical) passion, illustrated with staggering clarity. It was also, like La La Land, a jazz movie with no Black main characters. As much as I love these two films from Chazelle, there’s always going to be a miniature Charlie Parker sitting on my shoulder while I’m watching them, pointing at the screen and asking “Where are we?”

Both Moonlight and La La Land struck me to the core after leaving the theater, and they each represent what I think film should be. Regarding these highly contested upcoming Academy Awards, however, both camps of fandom have their own arguments over which should win what categories, and thus, which is the superior film.

There is no doubt that Barry Jenkins deserves Best Director. Going into this Sunday’s ceremony, the predictions are leaning toward La La Land for Best Picture. Where the Academy’s favor remains for these and the other awards of course remains to be seen. For Black talent, the value of Oscar validation could be argued either way. Historical precedent has proven as much. That Black actors (and to an extent, filmmakers) can only win Academy Awards when acting out some sort of struggle, telling a story of suffering or playing the villain is a symptom of a larger problem. And winning (especially the Best Supporting Actor trophy; see Cuba Gooding and Lou Gossett Jrs.) doesn’t guarantee a career boost the way it often does for white filmmakers and actors.

The unbearable mayo-ness of last year’s ceremony pointed to a film industry that serves to remind us of all the ways in which white people (and of course, only a specific segment of white people) are triumphant, interesting, hilarious or otherwise magnificent. White man-overcomes-impossible-odds is a particular trope that Hollywood has hammered us with plenty, with a few variations on the theme allowed for the occasional Black male or white female character, but rarely anyone else.

The business of film, like so many others, is overwhelmingly white and male, an instrument of empire from the jump. In a field whiter than Paul Ryan’s heavily starched boxers, one that often looks to put the whitest face possible on the culture it reflects, Moonlight is one of those recent offerings that seems to heed Jean-Luc Godard’s plea: “We must stop making movies and art in general for imperialism.” The hacked Sony emails from 2014 showed us that the film game is but a function of this society as a whole, and the “Denzel or bust” mindset is clearly not exclusive to that studio.

I could do for another film experience like the one La La Land gave me, and I’m excited for Gosling and Chazelle’s next project, a Neil Armstrong biopic. But I’d be lying if I said it was something I hadn’t seen before. Namely, pretty white folks flitting about in sharp dresses and crisp trousers, going on a journey of self-discovery, conflict, denouement, credits. And I’m nagged by the question of whether Hollywood would be as willing to tell a story like La La Land with Idris Elba or a relative newcomer (such as Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes) and Ruth Negga or Lupita N’yongo as leads.

At this year’s BAFTAs, actor Viola Davis warned that even with a far more diverse Academy than last year and black actors and a director being nominated, the causes and conditions that led to April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite call to action are far from alleviated.

As a Black person who loves film, I want to root for films like La La Land — (mostly) original in premise, well-made and sincere — but not entirely at the expense of films such as Moonlight. I shudder to think how many Moonlights we’ve missed out on because of Hollywood’s myopic, mid-key racist either/or approach.

Not unlike the way that America can no longer deny that racism, sexism, and every social -phobia and prejudice are still rampant in an age of Trump, Hollywood can no longer pretend that stories about/by/for people who aren’t white don’t sell and compel. Moonlight and La La Land represent a need for original and affecting films to continue to be made without compromise or the constrictions of narrow studio minds. Yet with a persistent lack of representation in front of and behind the camera in this decidedly non-post racial world, films like Moonlight are that much more necessary. After the “whitelash” of the 2016 election, the question becomes whether the film industry will fuck up like the recording one did in underestimating the importance of embracing another sort of change.